Struggling Johnson’s Blown Save Forces A’s Split of Doubleheader

By Matthew Harrington

OAKLAND, Calif. – Oakland Athletics closer Jim Johnson’s rocky start in the Bay Area went from bad to worse Wednesday night at the O.Co Coliseum. For the second time in a three-game series against the Cleveland Indians (2-1), Johnson (0-2, 45.00 ERA) entered the ninth inning with the A’s tied or ahead and coughed up the lead, turning a 4-3 edge into a blown save and ultimately a 6-3 loss to split the day-night doubleheader. Indians reliever Cody Allen (2-0, 0.00 ERA) bookended the series with wins in the first and third games while Jon Axford pitched a perfect ninth for his second save of the season.

“It sucks every time,” said losing pitcher Johnson of blowing the save opportunity. “You have to trust the positives and have to trust the work that you’re doing. I’m going to sleep it off tonight. I’m not going to do anybody any favors hanging my head. These guys need me. These guys have been playing their butts off. We should be 3-0. I’ll take the blame. If I sit here and sulk though, it’s not going to do anybody any good.”

A’s starter Josh Lindblom, called up to start the Wednesday’s second game to keep the rotation on track for the upcoming four-game set against the Seattle Mariners, pitched 4 2/3 innings and left with a 3-2 lead but the Oakland bullpen surrender four runs to drop two-of-three against the visiting Tribe.

“Anytime you lose a game with the lead in the ninth inning it hurts a little bit,” said A’s manager Bob Melvin. “You have to move on. You have no choice.”

Like in the afternoon game, the A’s (1-2) struck first in their very first at-bats of the game. After Lindblom fired a 1-2-3 inning, center fielder Sam Fuld debuted in style by tripling on a 1-1 McAllister fastball lifted to deep center. Josh Donaldson struck out but Jed Lowrie singled Fuld home for the 1-0 lead. Lowrie moved to second with on a wild pitch with designated hitter Brandon Moss batting. Moss joined Lowrie on the base path working a walk against Indians starter Zach McAllister to put Yoenis Cespedes at the plate with a runner in scoring position. Cespedes plated Lowrie, launching a 1-2 fastball to the corner in right field for a double with right fielder David Murphy’s  vision impaired by the setting Sun.

Cespedes opened the season with critics scrutinizing his long swing that produced a .167 batting average over 60 Spring Training at-bats. The Cuban masher silenced those critics, at least momentarily, going 2-for-5 in game one of the doubleheader then producing the RBI hit in the night cap. Cespedes finished the night cap with a hit in two at-bats paired with a tandem of walks, including one of the intentional variety.

Lindblom found himself in a jam in the third, surrendering a single to ninth-place hitter Lonnie Chisenhall to open the inning then issuing a walk to leadoff man Nyjer Morgan. The righty induced a fly ball off the bat of Nick Swisher and then walked Carlos Santana to load the bases with two outs. Lindblom finished the escape act, forcing a Michael Brantley flyout to leave the three Indians base runners stranded.

The Tribe found the run column an inning later when Asdrubal Cabrera singled sharply to right. Murphy flew out to Fuld but Mike Aviles ripped a 0-1 slider 350 feet over the wall in left for his first home run of the season to pull Cleveland even, 2-2. Lindblom retired the next two hitters.

Fuld again anchored the A’s offensive in the bottom of the fourth by singling home Reddick from second base and moving Nick Punto to third with two outs. Reddick reached base on a one-out single then moved to second on a base-on-balls to second baseman Punto. Fuld stole second, his first pilfering as a member of the A’s, but Donaldson bounced out to Cabrera to end the threat with the A’s leading 3-2 with four innings complete on the scorecard.

“Outstanding,” responded Melvin when asked to judge his replacement center fielder’s performance. “We didn’t want to play Coco (Crisp) both games of the doubleheader. We want to give Coco his days off this season. (Fuld) knows how to play that role. He knows how to get himself ready when he’s on the bench for a few days.”

Lindblom retired the first two batters he faced in the fifth before allowing a first-pitch double to Santana, catching the evening tilt after Yan Gomes did the honors in the afternoon game. Melvin lifted the righty in favor of Drew Pomeranz, a 2010 first-round draft pick (fifth overall) of the Indians. Lindblom, called up from the Sacramento Rivercats as part of the special 26th roster spot allotment for doubleheaders, finished the afternoon with two earned runs surrendered on five hits and a pair of walks and strikeouts respectively. Having only pitched 4 2/3 innings, Lindblom would not have qualified for the five-inning requirement to be named winning pitcher if the score held up.

“He was good,” said Melvin of Lindblom. “It was tough to take him out with 4 2/3 innings. I think he was at 85 pitches, we had a left-left match-up. I thought he kept us in the game. We got to the ninth inning with a lead so he did his job.”

Indians fans recognize Pomeranz as the player to be named later in the deal that sent Ubaldo Jimenez to to Cleveland from the Colorado Rockies for a package that included the 6-foot-5 southpaw. The Rockies later dealt the Memphis, Tenn. native to the A’s for Brett Anderson. The 22 year old, who made the bullpen after a strong spring showing, struggled with four straight balls to Brantley before Reddick nabbed a pop-up off the bat of Cabrera to close the books on the first half of the game.

Marc Rzepczynski replaced McAllister in the bottom of the fifth after the righty surrendered three earned runs on six hits with four walks and four punch-outs over four innings.  The lefty with the consonant-heavy surname held the A’s hitless over the next two innings to keep the deficit at one run.

For the A’s, Pomeranz opened the sixth, getting David Murphy to roll over on one that was handled by Daric Barton at first. Pomeranz then worked a full count after throwing three straight balls to Aviles, but ultimately lost the second baseman on a 4-seamer out of the strike zone.

Melvin and the A’s were on the losing end of a challenge that confirmed an out call on a tag play at home plate in the afternoon, but in the sixth inning Oakland became victim of their first overturned call off the season. Mike Aviles broke for second on an 0-1 delivery with pinch hitter Elliot Johnson at the plate. The throw from Derek Norris, subbed into the game as a pinch hitter in the fifth before taking over for starter John Jaso defensively, beat Aviles to the bag.

It appeared that the swipe tag from Nick Punto was on the mark. After some argument from Aviles, Francona emerged from the first base dugout to argue the call. Replay clearly revealed that Punto had missed the tag by a couple of inches, so the umpiring crew overturned the call after video review from headquarters in New York City and awarded Aviles the steal.

Aviles wound up stranded at second as Pomeranz got Johnson swinging on an 80-mph curveball for the second out, then Luke Gregerson came out of the bullpen to get pinch hitter Ryan Raburn to end the inning on a fly to Cespedes to maintain the one-run gap.

The A’s went down in order in the bottom of the 6th, opening the door for the Indians to tie it in the 7th after Brantley’s RBI ground out brought designated hitter Jason Kipnis in from third base. Kipnis drew a one-out walk, stole second with Santana at the plate then advanced to third when the Indians catcher singled later in the at-bat. Gregerson got Cabrera to line out to Fuld in center to strand Santana in scoring position.

Rzepczynski got Fuld, the lefty’s last batter of the day, to pop out to short to open the bottom of the seventh before giving way to right-hander Bryan Shaw. Josh Donaldson, laboring with a .143 batting average on two hits in 14 plate appearances this season, reached base and advanced to second to welcome Shaw when Brantley flubbed a routine fly in center. Brantley had shifted to center after Raburn pinch hit for Morgan and took over left field and narrowly avoided a collision with Raburn on the play. It was his first error in a franchise-record 247 games, with his last miscue coming June 3rd, 2012 against the Minnesota Twins.

Donaldson jogged to third on a wild pitch past backstop Santana, known more for his bat than defensive prowess behind the dish, but three-spot hitter Lowrie grounded out to a drawn-in second baseman prepared to cut an advancing runner down a home plate. The clean-up hitting lefty Moss, who ended the day 4-for-7, got the job done by rolling a ball into the hole at second with the Indians defense shifted to the right of the diamond. The slow roller got by first baseman Swisher but Aviles was able to scoop it and fire to Shaw racing to cover the bag. Shaw couldn’t close his glove on it with Moss bearing down on him, allowing the leading runner Donaldson to cross the plate with Oakland now up 4-3.

Sean Doolittle, a candidate to replace Johnson at closer should the offseason acquisition continue to struggle, pitched a perfect eighth inning. He now has pitched two innings this season, collecting three strikeouts and no hits along the way.

Francona lifted Shaw after 2/3 of an inning and an unearned run in favor of Monday’s winner Allen to open the eight. Allen retired the side in order to keep Cleveland within one run with the beleaguered Johnson loosening in the pen. Johnson took the mound showered by a hail of boos, with Monday night’s two-hit, two-walk, two-run performance fresh in A’s fan’s minds.

“He’s been around long enough,” said Melvin. “He’s had some ups and downs. It’s unfortunate. When you’re with a new team you want to get off to a good start. That’s tough on him, but we have to be behind him, we have to support him. He’s going to get better.”

Again Johnson failed to retire the first two batters he faced, giving up consecutive singles on two-seam fastballs to Raburn and Swisher. Kipnis bounced into a fielder’s choice with Raburn moving to third and Swisher out at second. With Santana at the plate, Kipnis stole second without a throw from Norris. Santana worked a five-pitch walk off Johnson, who also was roughed up in spring training to the tune of five runs in nine spring innings, loading the bases for Brantley.

“A lot of veteran guys don’t have a good spring,” said Melvin. “The velocity’s there, some of the movement’s there, maybe not as consistently as he’d like it. He’s been up in the zone a little bit more than he’d like.”

Brantley hit a first-pitch changeup, a sinking liner to right that bounced in front of Reddick. Reddick couldn’t field it cleanly with Raburn and Kipnis coming home and Brantley winding up on second with a two-RBI single and Cleveland’s first lead in 17+ innings of play Wednesday. Melvin had Johnson, usually an efficient groundball pitcher, set up the force play by issuing an intentional walk to Cabrera. David Murphy foiled the plans, hitting a sacrifice fly to Fuld to bring Santana home. Melvin called on reliever Even Scribner to mop things up in his first appearance of the season. Scribner got Mike Aviles to float one that Fuld gloved easily, limiting the damage to three runs and a blown save for Johnson.

Axford pitched a 12-pitch ninth, overpowering Fuld with a third-strike fastball before coaxing Donaldson and Lowrie to pop out, handing Cleveland a split of the twin bill and a 2-1 series win. Johnson ended up on the losing end, extended a streak of winless appearances against the Indians. Johnson is 0-7 against the Indians in his career. Though Melvin was coy about any shattered confidence he has in his $10 million closer, he did rule Johnson out for game one of a four-game set against visiting Seattle starting Thursday night. The Mariners come to town buoyed by a three-game sweep of the Los Angeles Angels, their best start to a season since the Ken Griffey Jr.-Jay Buhner-Edgar Martinez era.

“You know what, it’s been two games,” said Melvin after being asked if the thought of unseating Johnson at closer had crossed his mind. “Potentially because of the pitches he threw tonight (29 pitches), as far as tomorrow that’s tough. We traded for him for a reason. He has a terrific track record.”